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THE EXHAUSTED SCHOOL: 

"How Did We Ever Come to Believe that the State 
Should Tell Our Children What to Think?" 


John Taylor Gatto 

Keep in mind as I speak that I spent 26 years in public school classrooms. My perspective is 
that of an insider, not an outsider. You have been warned. 

We live in a time of great school crisis, and that crisis is linked to a greater social crisis in 
the general community. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are 
locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent - nobody talks to 
them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no 
future and no past, only a continuous present. 

We live in networks, not communities. Everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some 
strange way school is a major actor in this tragedy, just as it is a major actor in the 
widening gulf among races and social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism, we 
appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who 
wander through subway trains begging, and sleep upon the streets. 

I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my 27 years of teaching: schools and schooling 
are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes any more 
that scientists are made in science classes, or politicians in civics classes, or poets in English 
classes. The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. 

This is a great mystery because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as 
teachers and aides, and even as administrators. But the abstract logic of the institution 
overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care, and do work very 
hard, the institution is psychopathic - by which I mean it has no conscience. 

It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook 
and move to a different cell where he memorizes that man and monkeys derive from a 
common ancestor, or that a man named Columbus discovered America even though millions 
of people were already here. 

The idea that schooling and education are the same thing was never a convincing one, but 
in our lifetimes, yours and mine, it has become an exhausted one. 

How did we ever come to believe that the State should tell our children what to think? 

To escape the trap we are in will require acts of courage and imagination: the first an act of 
political resolve - to deconstruct the kind of schooling we have and return it to real people 
and real communities from abstract government hands; the second, to create a vision of 
what can be done and how to do it. My own job tonight will be to question the legitimacy of 
the school monopoly. In the hours we are together, you'll hear six separate logics of 
schooling, as different from each other as they are from the logic of government factory 
schools where I spend my own working life. 

If you had a choice where to send your own kid you might well choose one of these six 
ideas, yet still be grateful you knew about the other five, even if they were not the right 
way for you. But the secret strength in this simple program design is that they do not 
represent all the worthwhile kinds of schooling. Many more exist concealed from view by the 
government monopoly and its press agents. These are unique, one-of-a-kind places you'll 
hear from tonight - their existence proving there is no "one right way" to grow up. 

How on earth did we ever accept the idea a government had the right to tell us where to go 
to school? How did we ever come to believe the State should tell our children what to think? 
Our form of compulsion schooling is an invention of the State of Massachusetts, 140 years 
ago. It was resisted, sometimes with guns, by an estimated 80 percent of the 
Massachusetts population. A senator's office contended not too long ago that prior to 



compulsory government schooling the literacy rate in Massachusetts was 98 percent, but 
after it the figure never again reached above 91 percent. 

I don't think we'll get rid of schools anytime soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we're 
going to change what has become a disaster we need to recognize that ignorance is 
inherent in the design of the thing. It is not the fault of bad teachers, or of too little money 
spent. Structurally, schools fly in the face of how children learn. 

Take reading. People learn to read naturally and easily somewhere between the ages of 5 
and 12, some earlier, some later. Late readers are indistinguishable from early readers in a 
very short time. But the natural course of things can be violently altered by rewarding early 
readers - and by pronouncing later readers "in need of remediation". The lie is then 
compounded by supplying the deficient with "special" treatment, including assignment to a 
separate junk category called "special education". You cannot "teach" children to read any 
more than you can "teach" them to walk and talk. Under the right conditions they teach 
themselves with great facility. 

But you can teach children to hate reading, to do it poorly, and to hate themselves for not 
measuring up to the false premises of institutional reading practice - premises which 
provide the foundation for our multi-billion dollar reading industry. The reading racket, in 
particular, has marked the burgeoning home school movement for legal sanctions because 
the presence of nearly a million children who've taught themselves to read, soundly and 
happily, creates a clear and present danger to the "whole world" crowd and to the "phonics" 
crowd alike. Bad for business. 

Schools as we know them haven't been around very long. They don't have deep roots. 

That's one thing in our favor as we think about uprooting them. Schools as we have them 
were designed at the time of the American Civil War to be instruments for the scientific 
management of a mass population, the cheap labor immigration was providing to factory 
and farm. Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic 
human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled. 

To a very great extent schools succeed in doing this. But in a nation increasingly 
disintegrated and demoralized, in a national order where the only successful people are 
independent, self-reliant, confident, and individualistic, the products of schooling are 
irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push 
paper and talk on telephones, make deals or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer 
terminal, but they hate to be alone with themselves. As human beings they are useless. 

I spoke in southern Illinois last week. During my talk a young man about 25 years old stood 
up in the back of the room and said in a tormented voice, "I'm 25 years old and have two 
college degrees. I don't know how to do anything. I don't know how to do anything at all. If 
the fan belt of my car broke in a snowstorm out in the country I'd freeze to death reciting 
the goddam Pythagorean theorem." 

Much daily misery around us is caused by the fact our schools force children to grow up 
absurd. Any reform in schooling must deal with its absurdities: it is absurd and antilife to be 
part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people exactly the same age 
and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from information you need to be sane, 
and cuts you off from your own past and future. It seals you into a continuous present much 
the same way television does. It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system compelling 
you to listen to a stranger read poetry when you ache to learn to construct buildings; it is 
absurd and anti-life to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when the 
rush of language inside you makes you want to write a poem. 

It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a buzzer, every day of 
your natural youth, in an institution that allows you no private time or space. What parent 
would allow such a horror to be inflicted if their own schooling had left them with the power 
to understand? "What about 'basics'?" you say. If you are willing to face the truth you would 
see that only talking is basic to the society we've made. We are a land of talkers now. We 
pay talkers most and admire talkers most - and so our children talk constantly, following 



public models of television, radio, and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to get children to 
take "basics" seriously these days - especially in the social environment of schools - 
because they really aren't basic to the world we've forced on the children. None of us stays 
silent long enough to figure out what the new basics really are. 

Two institutions control our children's lives - television and schooling, probably in that order. 
Both reduce the real world to a never-ending, nonstop abstraction. For most of history until 
recently, the time of a child would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, 
real apprenticeships, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really 
needed to learn. What that is is, of course, different for each of us. 

A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, negotiating, and 
studying every level of the society around you first-hand. Also in learning how to make a 
home, a living, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or woman. 
There was a continuity and a comprehensiveness to life. It was not fragmented into subjects 
and specialties to provide work for professionals, nor was it arranged into sequences that 
made no sense. The kind of education history reveals was administered most often by 
people you knew - not by total strangers arranged into a priesthood called "teachers". 

In the new world order that was arranged for us after the Civil War the calculus was 
changed. Scientific positivism, as it used to be called, wanted the calculus changed and 
Horace Mann and Frederick Taylor were nothing if they were not religiously Positivist. Today 
the tabulation of hours in a young life reads like this: My children watch television 55 hours 
a week according to recent reports, and they sleep 56. That leaves them 57 hours in which 
to grow up strong and competent and whole. But my children attend school 30 hours more, 
spend 8 hours preparing for school, and in goings and comings, and an additional 7 hours a 
week in something called "home"-work - although this is really more schoolwork except in 
"Newspeak". After the 45 school hours are removed a total of 12 hours remain each week 
from which to fashion a private person - one that can like, trust, and live with itself. Twelve 
hours. But my kids must eat, too, and that takes some time. Not much, because they've 
lost the tradition of family dining - how they learn to eat in school is best called "feeding" - 
but if we allot just 3 hours a week to evening feedings, we arrive at a net total of private 
time for each child of 9 hours. 

It's not enough. It's not enough, is it? The richer the kid the less TV he watches, of course, 
but the rich kid's time is just as narrowly proscribed by his inevitable assignments to private 
lessons from more hired strangers, seldom in areas of his own actual choice. 

This demented schedule is an efficient way to create dependent human beings, needy 
people unable to fill their own hours, unable to initiate lines of meaning to give substance 
and pleasure to their existence. It is a national disease, this dependency and aimlessness, 
and schooling and television and busy work - the total Chautauqua package - has a lot to do 
with it. 

Think of the things killing us as a nation: narcotic drugs, brainless competition, dishonesty, 
greed, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst 
pornography of all - lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy - all of 
these are addictions of dependent personalities. That is what our brand of schooling must 
inevitably produce. A large fraction of our total economy has grown up around providing 
service and counseling to inadequate people - and inadequate people are the main product 
of government compulsion schools. 

I want to tell you what the effect is on children of taking the time they need to grow up and 
forcing them to spend it on abstractions. No reform that brainlessly defines our national 
problem as reading, writing, and arithmetic will be anything more than a coward's evasion 
of the nightmare we've inflicted on our children. 

The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of 
thousands of years. Nobody wants to grow up these days because assuming responsibility 
takes practice, but schooltime precludes practice. 



The children I teach have almost no curiosity. What they do have is transitory, they cannot 
even concentrate long on jobs they assign themselves. Can you see a possible connection 
between bells ringing again and again to change classes and this phenomenon of 
evanescent attention? When everything you do is interrupted before it's finished, why 
should you care about anything? 

The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is linked to today. 

The exact moment they are in is the boundary of their consciousness. That was the dream 
of a 19th century Frenchman named Auguste Comte, and before he died in the insane 
asylum at Charenton his ideas had a profound impact on Horace Mann and the American 
schoolroom, and on Frederic Taylor and the American workplace. 

The children I teach have no sense of the past and how it predestinated the present, how it 
limits their choices, how it shapes their lives and values. A long line of Western thinkers, all 
of them childless men like Comte, have understood that breaking a child's ties with the past 
cracks him away from his own family. And separating parents and children has been the 
goal of childless male philosophers since Plato wrote about its value in The Republic. 

Without strong family ties, he said, children are easier subjects for central planning. 
Augustine knew that, and Erasmus, and Bacon, and Descartes, and Hobbes, and Rousseau - 
and all the other childless men who helped to architect the government schooling we have 
today. 

The children I teach are cruel to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune, they 
laugh at weakness, they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly. 
The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy, solitude, or unguarded speech. They cannot 
deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self 
beneath their public school personalities, personalities which must remain open at all times, 
as a prostitute's body is open to the constant inspection and ranking of strangers. Our 
children's public personalities are kept constantly under surveillance by authorities in an 
orgy of voyeurism. The outer persona of the children I teach is fabricated from artificial bits 
and pieces of behavior borrowed from television, or acquired by studying the preferences of 
schoolteachers. The real self is too small and vulnerable to bear longtime exposure, because 
it has had no privacy in which to develop strength and integrity. Since exposure is required 
in intimate relationships, these must be avoided. My children are not who they pretend to 
be. Most of them aren't anybody at all, thanks to school. It's frightening. 

The children I teach are strikingly materialistic, following the lead of schoolteachers who 
materialistically "grade" everything, and television mentors who offer everything in the 
world for sale. 

The children I teach are dependent, passive, timid in the presence of new challenges. This 
timidity is often masked by surface bravado, by the exuberance of youth, by anger or 
aggressiveness, but underneath the bluster is emptiness, mirroring the great vacuum, the 
black hole of government schooling which draws in vast energies, but emits little. 

I could name other conditions school reform must tackle, but by now you will have grasped 
my thesis. Schools and television cause these pathologies. It's a simple matter of 
arithmetic. Between schooling and television all the time children have to become adults is 
eaten up. That is what has destroyed the American family; it is no longer a factor in the 
education of its own young, it no longer has access to its own children. 

Tonight's program is one of choices, choices for parents, choices for young people, choices 
for communities. Where did we ever get the crazy idea that government had the right to tell 
us how our own kids should grow up? 

Where did we ever get the grotesque idea that the State has a right to educate our kids? 
Where did we ever get the notion there is only one right way to grow up instead of 
hundreds? How did we lose our way and come to believe that human value and human 
quality can be reduced to numbers derived from paper/pencil tests?